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Ukrainian resistance in the south. How do the temporarily occupied areas live?

The Ukrainian South is a beautiful warm region. On the one hand, there are the Black Sea, deserts and pink salt lakes, and on the other, fertile fields where farmers grow the most vegetables in Ukraine.

The southern region of Ukraine, namely parts of Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Mykolaiv regions, has been under temporary Russia’s occupation since almost the first days of the war. The Russians are using these lands to create a land corridor between the temporarily occupied East of Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula to supply more military personnel and weapons for the war as well as to block Ukraine’s access to the sea coast, steal grain, and intimidate the local population.

Read below what is happening in the occupied south and how people live there.

Russia has activated a regime of terror in the south of Ukraine

The Russians entered cities and villages of southern Ukraine with bloody shootings and shelling, trying to intimidate the local population as much as possible. In Kherson, in the first days, the Russians shot 16 members of the territorial defense and killed a citizen who came out of the shelter to get food. Despite this, citizens went to rallies against the occupation with bare hands and Ukrainian flags in them for a long time.

Residents say that Russians rob supermarkets and coffee shops, demand services from the population under threat, and steal gasoline from some people to resell it to others for Ukrainian hryvnias.

It is most difficult for those who make active and underground resistance, as well as for veterans of combat operations and participants of territorial defense. Russians kidnap, hold captive, physically and morally abuse those residents who do not behave obediently. Russians often hunt journalists, religious figures, volunteers, and activists.

“I am a volunteer – we collect money, buy food and deliver it to elderly and large families. But the Russian military kidnaps and intimidates such people because our work is not profitable for them – they want the locals to take more Russian aid.” 

Dasha (name changed for security reasons) from Kherson. April 2022.
For Ukrainska Pravda

Human Rights Watch’s international organization published a report on war crimes committed by Russian troops in the occupied south of Ukraine. Employees of the organization interviewed 71 people from Kherson, Melitopol, Skadovsk, and Berdiansk (cities of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions). Almost all reported on abductions and torture that they witnessed or experienced. 

“People interviewed described being tortured, or witnessing torture, through prolonged beatings and in some cases electric shocks. They described injuries including broken ribs and other bones and teeth, severe burns, concussions, broken blood vessels in the eye, cuts, and bruises.”  

Human Rights Watch Report from 22.07.22 

Unbreakable. The guerrilla movement of the Ukrainian South terrorizes the occupiers, remains anonymous, and joins the Ukrainian resistance with all its might

The whole world saw the strong resistance of Ukrainians in the southern regions even at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. After mass repressions, shootings, beatings, and kidnappings, resistance in unarmed form became impossible.

Now there is a struggle for the symbolic Ukrainian space and against the plans of the occupiers. People with Ukraine in their hearts tear down Russian flags, notes, and symbols. Instead, in Kherson, Henichesk, Melitopol, Nova Kakhovka, and Berdiansk, blue and yellow ribbons, Ukrainian graffiti, leaflets with pro-Ukrainian appeals, and threats to Russian collaborators and military appear. These traditional methods of communication are much more difficult to silence than television or the Internet. 

On August 6, the Zhovta Strichka — or “Yellow Ribbon” resistance movement published a pilot issue of “Voice of the Partisan” – an underground newspaper with truthful information for residents of the temporarily occupied territories. Two days after the newspaper’s launch, it became known that the publication was being distributed in the temporarily occupied Crimea, namely in Simferopol.

Considering the Human Rights Watch report, this is an incredible heroic deed that requires strong endurance and even greater faith in the victory of Ukraine.

The Economist called Melitopol is the unofficial capital of Ukraine’s resistance. The mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, who was previously abducted and held captive by the Russians, said on Ukrainian television that 99% of the residents who remained in the city resisted the occupation. In particular, the people of Melitopol “completely ignored” Russia Day, which the occupiers tried to celebrate on June 12, and “do not line up for Russian passports.”

The guerilla movement in the south obviously scares the Russian occupiers. They strengthen the so-called “filtering measures” in temporarily occupied cities and villages: they increase the number of checkpoints and selectively stop public transport and people on the streets. Phones, correspondence, photo galleries, and personal belongings are often checked.

“Some residents deliberately remain in the occupied region – and in this way protest.”

The first deputy chairman of the Kherson Regional Council, Yurii Sobolevskyi.

The inhabitants of the south do not want to submit to the “Russian world,” and in every possible way, they declare that this is their land, this is Ukraine, and they will not give it to the invaders.

What is it like to live in the temporarily occupied territory?

Staying in the temporarily occupied territories is becoming more and more dangerous. The Russians increase the pressure on the local population. Residents have no opportunity to earn money, withdraw cash, or receive emergency medical care. Communication with the outside world is not stable. For example, from May 30 to June 3 in the Kherson region, there was no mobile coverage at all, and it was impossible to find out what was happening with relatives. And only some settlements have access to the Internet.

Residents of Kherson are trying to “catch” mobile communications. In May, the occupiers disconnected the Internet connection, and after its return, Internet traffic was already controlled by Russia. Photo: Kostyantyn Ryzhenko

“I had to buy Russian SIM cards to have a basic opportunity to find out which family members are where, when they will be at home, and to call an ambulance. But now you have to filter what you talk about because they (the Russians) can listen in.”

Veronika, a native resident of Berdiansk, in an interview for Zaborona.

Increasingly, you can find Russian goods in the supermarkets imported through the temporarily occupied Crimea. In general, the amount of food has dropped significantly, and prices, on the contrary, have risen sharply. The situation with medicines is even worse because any Ukrainian or foreign medicines deliveries have stopped. Residents sell leftover drugs or exchange pills for food or fuel.

To ensure economic integration, the occupation administration imposes the Russian ruble and restricts payments in Ukrainian hryvnia under the threat of punishment, replaces Ukrainian banks with Russian, and demands local businesses to re-register and pay taxes to the Russian budget challenging them with expropriation of facilities and land plots in case of disobedience.

This is the “Fabryka” shopping center, the largest in the city of Kherson. Destroyed by shelling. July 20, 2022.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

More and more Ukrainians decide to leave the occupation, but the road is no less dangerous and difficult than life at home.

Russia’s illegal passportization and fake referendums

Annexation by force of the territory of a sovereign and independent country is a gross violation of the United Nations Charter. Russia is hoping to cover its planned violations behind the smokescreen of a fake expression of people’s will:
– forced distribution of Russian passports as a tool to change in demographics,
– sham referendum results rigged in favor of integrating to Russia.According to Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov, occupation authorities originally planned one-day voting, but are now considering a seven-day round of “voting from home” with the Russian military going door-to-door and “interviewing” Melitopol residents. Thus, there are reasonable grounds to anticipate that Russian soldiers may use force and terror against residents who refuse to vote.

According to a Survey of residents in territories of Ukraine temporarily controlled by the Russian Federation conducted by the Active group sociology company, if the Russian Federation holds a “referendum” there, 82% of respondents will not participate in it, and 9.2% have not yet decided. 72.7% of respondents consider that Russia’s territorial claims are absolutely illegitimate, and 61,5% consider that their regions must remain an integral part of Ukraine.

Due to the mass resistance of Ukrainians in the temporarily occupied territories, the aggressor’s authorities failed to conduct fake referendums at once (following the Crimean scenario of 2014) and had to postpone it. However, with the growing capacities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ for counterattack in the South, the implementation of Russia’s plans to hold illegal referendums has sped up.

Paraskevych Lubov Petrivna, 73, walks past her home in the Kherson region on May 2. The house had been damaged by Russian shelling. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The price you have to pay to get to the territory under Ukrainian control

While occupying part of the Kherson region, the Russian military did not agree with the Ukrainian authorities on any “green corridor” to evacuate residents. The occupiers are trying to make it difficult for people to evacuate: they demand to “get an exit pass” at the “commandant’s office,” set limited hours for leaving, and conduct large-scale searches.
It is also possible to leave the temporarily occupied south through the temporarily occupied Crimea to the territory of Russia and then through the Baltic countries to get back  to Ukraine. Such a journey can last from 3 days to a week without long stops. You can also drive your car towards Ukrainian territory, but you must go through checkpoints and stand in queues.

The village of Vasylivka in the Kherson region is the only checkpoint for leaving the temporarily occupied part of four regions: Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk, and Luhansk. And that’s why the exit queue is so long that people spend 5 to 7 days in it. It is impossible to deliver food or water to those who are waiting. At the same time, the Russian occupation authorities declared that no evacuation was needed. 

On August 10, the mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, announced that ten people had already died at the checkpoint in Vasylivka who did not wait for evacuation.

Here are some stories of eyewitnesses who left the temporarily occupied south under different conditions and at different times.

Hanna, a resident of Tavriisk, Kherson region.
She left for Ukrainian territory in the spring with her husband and two children.

Hanna lived with her family in the basement for more than a month. Tavriisk lacked gasoline, cash, medicine, and baby food as in other southern cities.

“My husband and I went out to protest rally in Tavriisk. Itʼs very scary when you stand in line to buy bread, and they ride in armored personnel carriers and set their weapons on you. It was generally very scary. We started thinking about how to leave. Were afraid that they would shoot people.”

The last straw for the family was the threat that the husband would be forcibly mobilized to serve in the Russian army. Hanna and her husband decided to take the children out with a driver they knew.

“There were 18 checkpoints on the road. On each one [the Russians] checked our luggage, driverʼs and husbandʼs documents and smartphones. The driver warned us to delete all the photos, Viber and Facebook apps.”

Now Hanna is safe in the west of the country. But her parents remain in the occupation, for whom she worries daily.

“I remember my feelings at the first Ukrainian checkpoint — I felt free. It was very scary in Tavriisk, when you canʼt go anywhere, you canʼt let the children out. We sat in apartments and watched in windows whatʼs happening. In the morning you run for bread or milk, and then at noon the city dies out.”

* Hanna told her story to Ukrainian online media

Artem, his wife, and his child left the Kherson region only at the 5th attempt

At the end of July, Artem and his family finally managed to get to the territory controlled by Ukraine in their car. The journey lasted six days. They were forced to return the previous four times due to long queues – the Russians kept people at checkpoints for weeks.

“This time, we were the 320th in line. We were lucky because my brother lives near Enerhodar, and we could go to spend the night with him. The people in it controlled the exit queue. So we just wrote down our names and remembered who was in front of us and behind us. Four pensioners died in line during these days because it was very hot, and another woman gave birth in a car.”

Residents of the south arrive at the Zaporizhzhia refugee center after a long wait in line. August 2, 2022.
Photo: Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

No more than 20-30 cars passed through the checkpoint every day, but after the deaths in the queue, the occupiers began to let people through more actively. There were also restrictions on fuel — the occupiers were allowed to carry only one 20-liter can with them, although there were no gas stations nearby. Locals helped with gasoline.

* Artem told his story to Ukrainian online media Hromadske

Elina, a resident of Chornobaivka village, Kherson region, left the occupation via Crimea

Elina and her family spent the entire spring under occupation in the small village of Chornobaivka, known as a Ukrainian meme and a symbol of the destruction of the Russian occupiers. However, the situation in the village was not funny – the Russians were constantly shelling buildings with cluster shells. At the end of spring, the village was entirely left without mobile communication and Internet connection, and the occupiers repeatedly looted abandoned houses and shot passers-by for no reason.

There were several ways to get out of Chornobaivka, but almost all of them were dangerous – evacuation convoys became easy prey for the Russian military.

“One woman from Chornobayivka tried to open a new evacuation route with a volunteer, but the Russians started shelling their small convoy. She laid down on the ground with her puppy and blew herself up on a mine. And the carrier got a fragment in the head.”

Elina left the village with her mother and grandparents. At the Crimean border, Russians took only her for questioning.

“​​Some men can be kept from an hour to 8. Young people are often chosen. I was scared when they took my passport and sent me for questioning. They also asked if I took pictures of military equipment and had acquaintances from the Armed Forces, Security Service of Ukraine, or the Azov regiment. I just thank God they didn’t ask me something about Ukraine because I wouldn’t be able to lie and say, for example, that I don’t love my country or that I consider someone a Nazi.”

In Crimea, the family moved to a bus with Russian license plates and drove unnoticed to the border with Lithuania. Now they are safe, but they continue to live with acquired psychological trauma. Elina’s grandfather still wakes at night from the tram sounds and asks his granddaughter if the Russians will bomb them.

* Elina told her story to Ukrainian online media Wonderzine

A large fire is seen from the road to the Kherson front line, in the Mykolaiv region.
Photo: Wojciech Grzedzinski / The Washington Post

When should we wait for the liberation of the south of Ukraine?

Literally, every Ukrainian is waiting for the moment when it becomes known that the when the Armed forces of Ukraine liberate long-suffering Ukrainian South.

Despite the difficult situation on every part of the front in Ukraine, in the light of the latest news, we can assume that the south is becoming the central place of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Active hostilities in this direction may begin in the near future.

In mid-June, the first HIMARS rocket launcher systems were delivered to Ukraine, which helped the Ukrainian defenders to carry out a series of effective attacks and even became the basis of the new tactics of the Armed Forces. From that moment on, almost every week, there were reports of destroyed ammunition depots and bases of the invaders  in the southern direction. And on July 26, the Antonivsky bridge was damaged – an important logistical facility of the enemy, which allowed them to deliver new armed groups and weapons near Kherson.

A car drives over the Antonivsky Bridge near Kherson, damaged by the Ukrainian army, on July 21, 2022. In August, the bridge was closed to all types of transport. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

On August 9, in the temporarily occupied Crimea, powerful explosions rang out at the Russian airbase, from which fighter jets took off to bomb the Kherson, Mykolaiv, and Zaporizhzhya regions. The Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported that nine enemy planes were eliminated on the peninsula.

A destroyed Russian military vehicle sits in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Photo: Nicole Tung / The Washington Post

As of October 21, the Armed Forces of Ukraine have already liberated 88 settlements and 12,000 people in the Kherson region from the Russian occupation. Ukrainian defenders fight back every piece of Ukrainian land with blood and sweat on the way to freedom and complete liberation of Ukraine.

Support them to bring the return of the Ukrainian South home closer.